Dairy cows must be pregnant in order to give milk, and their female offspring either become dairy cows themselves or are slaughtered almost immediately for bob veal. The male calves, however, are a byproduct. Some are killed for bob veal, and a smaller number are raised for beef. The rest become milk-fed veal. The veal industry was actually developed as a result of these “extra” calves.1 (Learn more about dairy.)
Veal is the meat of calves who were taken from their mothers at only a few hours old, raised in intense confinement, and killed at four to six months of age. They are fed a liquid diet intentionally deficient in both iron and fibre; the resulting “borderline” anemia makes their meat extremely white and tender. As many as 10% of veal calves develop full-blown anemia.2 There is almost no risk to the calves’ health in terms of providing too much iron, but higher iron levels translate to darker meat–and dark meat is worth far less in the marketplace.3 As with human babies, calves are vulnerable to illness and infection, and the unnatural conditions under which they are raised make them even more susceptible. To better restrict muscle development and to reduce disease transmission, many veal calves are chained by their necks inside a two-foot wide crate for the entirety of their short lives. They are unable to turn around, stretch, or even lie down comfortably.4
Calves kept in these crates exhibit classic symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as head tossing and shaking, kicking, scratching, and stereotypical chewing and licking behavior. This last symptom is in part the result of having been separated from their mothers; as babies, the calves are driven to suckle and chew anything they can. The company of other calves becomes even more necessary without the presence of a mother cow, but crates separate them and make socialization impossible.5,6
Other veal calves are raised in hutches, small, igloo-like structures. Some open into a tiny, enclosed pen; others have a short chain to which the calf is tethered. In both cases, the calf is allowed slight outdoor access but is unable to socialize with the calves on either side of him.7 (Farms raising female calves to be future dairy cows also use these hutches.)
Some veal calves are raised in “group housing”. In group housing, between seven and twenty calves are raised in a pen together. They may have more space than they would in individual crates, and have more mobility as well as the ability to socialize. The need to suck and chew is not diminished in group-housed calves; many exhibit behaviours such as biting tails, suckling each others’ genitals, mouths, ears, and legs, and drinking urine.8 Other issues are bullying and increased chances for disease and injury. Additionally, because there is more of a chance for muscles to develop, calves raised in groups can have darker meat, making them less valuable to the industry.9 Though group housing is arguably more humane than isolation, the calves are still taken from their mothers immediately after birth and sent to slaughter at only a few months old. And as with crates, the calves have no access to the outdoors.
For all forms of veal housing, industry code requires that calves need only be provided with light “sufficient…to observe one another” for eight out of every 24 hours. This means that they might spend most of their lives in complete darkness or in poor lighting.10
Restricting muscle development makes the calves’ meat tender, and anemia makes it pale. Despite being ruminants, the animals are denied hay or grains; in most cases, they also are not required to have bedding of any kind. 11 Many rest on wooden slats, which cause wounds and scrapes on the knees of up to 20% of calves, or bare concrete. For the farm, this means reduced labour costs when it comes to cleaning.12
The iron- and fibre-deficient diet fed to veal calves results in extreme weakness, as well as diarrhea. Between 2.5% and 8.8% of them die or are culled due to illness before they reach slaughter.13 Veal calves also commonly develop ear, respiratory, and digestive infections; the latter two are leading causes of death. 14 Approximately 87% of them suffer ulcers.
Veal calves sometimes present a challenge at slaughterhouses, which are built for larger animals. Though some slaughterhouses have narrower chutes and smaller killing boxes to accommodate calves, the relentless speed of the killing line and the electrical systems moving the calves along means that many are still conscious when their throats are cut. As one slaughterhouse worker explained:
In the morning the big holdup is the calves…To get done with them faster, we’d put eight or nine of them in the knocking box at a time. As soon as they start going in, you start shooting, the calves are jumping, they’re all piling up on top of each other. You don’t know which ones got shot and which ones didn’t get shot at all, and you forget to do the bottom ones. They’re hung anyway, and down the line they go, wriggling and yelling. The baby ones — two, three weeks old — I felt bad killing them so I just let them walk past.15
For more pictures of veal calves, click here.
1. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of the Veal Calf Husbandry, 2008 Oct. 13
3. Vermeire, Drew A., Ph.D., Iron Management to Improve Color and Performance in Veal Calves, 2006 Nov. 8
4. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of Veal Calf Husbandry, 2008 Oct. 13
6. Wiepkema, P.R., Developmental aspects of motivated behaviour in domestic animals, Journal of Animal Science, 1987 Nov.
8. Wiepkema, P.R., Developmental aspects of motivated behaviour in domestic animals, Journal of Animal Science, 1987 Nov.
9. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of Veal Calf Husbandry, 2008, Oct. 13
10. Canadian Agri-food Research Council, Recommended code of practice for the care and handling of farm animals: Veal Calves, 1998
11. Smith, John M., Ohio State University Fact Sheet: Raising Dairy Veal
12. National Farm Animal Care Council, Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle, 2009 March
13. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of Veal Calf Husbandry, 2008 Oct. 13
15. Eisnitz, Gail, Slaughterhouse (New York, 1997), p. 43